The simplicity movement in America right now is amusing as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In lots of ways simplicity has been forced on me. No machines, no driving, no running water. I haul all my own water upstairs or inside from the balcony during rainy season. All dishes are washed by hand. All clothes, sheets, towels, and everything else are washed by hand. I mop my floor with a wet towel. To get around the village I walk or ride my bike. My morning commute is just over 20 minutes by foot through fields of corn and sunflowers during rainy season, sand and thorns during dry season.
I teach with a notebook of handwritten notes, a blackboard, and chalk. There are no handouts, no worksheets, not enough textbooks for every student. The notes they copy are their textbook. The only copies are of exams. There are no manipulatives, real or virtual. The classrooms are too bright for any projection to be seen. Lab supplies are limited and space virtually none existent.
If I want a meal I cook it from fresh ingredients. If I want bread I bake it myself - I can buy loaves but they are molding within a couple days. To have drinking water I have first boiled it, let it cool, and poured it into a filter to drip through. I have no ingredients that require refrigeration or are not locally grown.
Anywhere I walk in the vil I pass herds of cows and goats and occasionally pig pens. The road through dirt. The paths I walk turn to rivers after a storm.
I do not have enough internet access to keep up with the news much less waste time on Netflix or Buzzfeed. I have read 40 books in the last 19 months. I have gotten hooked on podcasts to keep up somewhat on the news and make the trek to school more interesting.
So watching the new years resolutions about slowing down, walking more, cooking with fresh ingredients… that is not simplifying my life, that is my life. The amount of stuff needed for life in America is daunting. A new phone and cell plan, furniture, clothes for various occasions - casual, professional, formal, sleep, workout, etc - and shoes to go with them. A computer, a tablet, a television. A car. I can only hope that in returning to the US I maintain some of the simplicity that has come to dominate my life. That I continue to read a lot. To take a weekly day away from technology. To cook most nights and with fresh ingredients, not from a box. On the other hand I will gladly take back running water, drinkable tap water, hot showers that do not require waiting for the water to heat first and a washer/dryer.
There are days I think I am having a huge impact. There are many days when I feel like I am making no impact or not enough impact or not the right impact. And almost every day I have at least one moment of believing I cannot make an impact.
Today instead of debate the students had a discussion about why students fail the form 4 national exam (basically high school exit exam). Besides prostitution being brought up (I do not think I have beard a debate the did not mention prostitution) it was nice to see students recognizing some of the barriers to their education and success. There was a fair amount of blame put on poverty (another common theme) but otherwise the discussion focused on the faults of the students.
First of all these kids have overcome a lot just to get to secondary school and overcome a lot to be in secondary school. Many of the students walk 10+ kilometers to get to school every day. They struggle to understand me because the language of instruction changes from Swahili in primary school to English in secondary school. The most discipline I do in the classroom is closing notebooks from other subjects or threatening not to teach when the class is chatty (I have never had to follow through on that threat).
Yet the majority of this discussion was about student laziness (and characteristics/ behaviors of lazy students) and truancy and other things students need to do better. Now I will not deny that these things hurt their grades, that is not the first thing or things I would list as reasons that students fail. There are many systemic issues that cause huge barriers for students.
This week began with some harsh reminders of some of the barriers. A form 4 girl had run away because she is pregnant. To be honest I would run away too. She will be expelled from school and potentially/probably kicked out of her home too. Her opportunities to return to school are very few and probably expensive. Another pair of students were caught leaving home in their school uniforms only to change clothes and spend the day in the village. They were beat in the staff room by their father, very aggressively. This was followed the next day by pregnancy testing the entire form 4 class and any other female students suspected of also changing and spending the day in the village. These were just the obvious barriers in two days.
I will write again about barriers to education, but in the meantime if you are interested check out this human rights watch report all of these barriers and more are present at my school.
Reflecting on the discussion and the many other barriers I see to my students' success I found it sad that they could only critic themselves. It showed me, as I have noticed and lamented many times, that they carry the burden of education. They see their education and success as entirely their responsibility alone. While I admire their resolve, I wish they also understood how much is working against them so that they would understand how far they have come.
From early in PST (first 3 months in country which is training) I knew these two years in Peace Corps were going to be a struggle. Tanzanian culture values relationships while American culture values efficiency. In the US I felt guilty if I wasn’t busy or being productive. But I have always been the independent, planning, efficient person. From early in elementary school I wouldn't let my parents help me with my homework. The threat of getting help on a spelling test was enough motivation to do better on my spelling test, without any assistance.
While I tend to operate very directly, getting to the point and accomplishing the task at hand, I'm learning to slow down and value relationships. Even asking a simple question is preempted by greetings and pleasantries. Very few things are scheduled explicitly. When I need to discuss a project with a teacher I tell we need to talk about it and wait until we find a time when we are both free to do it. While attending early service training I spent a day planning. I was making flipcharts and writing session plans for upcoming sessions. My writing session plans means looking at past sessions and available resources and typing notes for the sessions and activities as I go. Meanwhile in the same room some of the Tanzanian staff were also making session plans. For them planning the sessions was spending the day discussing the topics. At the end of the day, about an hour before our daily debrief meeting they sat down with the minimal notes they had from their discussion and wrote out the session plan in one go. They had a conversation and only at the end put it into writing. Meanwhile I was working from writing and my own ideas and knowledge and writing more. We had two very different approaches to planning sessions and both of them work. While my session plans had detailed notes of all the information to be covered and additional information for anticipated questions, their session plans were a basic outline of the material to be covered knowing the material having discussed it that day. This will surprise no one who knows me, I much prefer my detailed notes. But I learned a lot from listening to and occasionally participating in their conversations that day and watching that become a session the next day.
These things still drive me crazy - the fact that the noahs (mini-vans which is my transportation back to my village from town) never leave on time, I continuously show up to meetings which never happen or start hours late and constantly make inquiries as to the progress of various projects to make sure they are not forgotten and find out if any progress has been made. In an ideal world I would have clear expectations for my job instead of going with what I think is best until someone tells me I need to do it differently. I would have a schedule that I can stick to and know will run on time. I would know that transportation to my vil leaves at x time every day and it would actually leave at that time and get back to my village in x time. I would like to know what exactly the district is looking for and expects when they come to inspect the school. But that's not the reality I live in and if I am honest that's never reality, even if western cultures are a lot closer. I have gotten used to it and more importantly I am learning a lot from this culture.
While many of these things and more are why I do not see myself living in Tanzania permanently, I am grateful to live in a culture which clashes with my core for a short period for the lessons and insights it has given me about myself. I am learning to create consistency for myself and how to use what feels like wasted time effectively (this includes a lot of reading while waiting for noahs or meetings or other things). I have made a morning routine for myself to start my day in a consistent way, even knowing that before long it will probably all be off schedule and plan. I learned to write notes rather than plan timed lessons because chances of me being able to teach the whole 80 minute period with no interruptions or need to explain background material or missing students are small. I have also learned how to make up for missed class time by leaving notes on the board while students are fetching water or gathering my students back before they leave to fetch water and having them sent later during a period without a teacher. These 20 months have been a constant lesson in self-motivation - what do I need to keep myself going even when it feels like that's the only thing going. I have learned to greet before anything else and to come at questions or problems by bringing up a related topic.
It's a new year and it's been a long time since I've posted so some updates on what's been going on here in Tanzania.
End of School - The Tanzania school year runs January to December. National examinations begin in early November for form 4 students (12th grade) and continue with form 2 (10th grade) afterward. At my school teachers write exams for forms 1 and 3 which are given at the same time as the form 2 national exam. Because of changes in school staff I wrote exams for both forms, even though I only taught form 3, and subsequently graded all 450 exams.
End of school is difficult because what I enjoy about my job is the actual teaching portion, but as exams begin there is little to no teaching time and all my time is spent writing and grading exams which is not my favorite task especially when most students fail as is the case for physics and math. Additionally many teachers beat students who fail when they pass back exams. So at the end of the year, or any term, I am more than ready for the break to recharge and get back in the classroom, the part of my job I love.
After grading all those exams it was time for traveling but relaxation would come a bit later. First I was off to Morogoro for the early service training for the new education class. Early service training is after 3 months at site. Volunteers come in having experienced life at site, getting settled at their schools, and with lots of questions. I had the priviledge of joining them for one week of early service training and an additional week of in-service training. For EST I arrived to facilitate Shika na Mikono sessions; Shika na Mikono is a group of volunteers who work to improve math and science resources especially how to use locally available resources to teach math and science in the rural schools most volunteers teach at. We taught sessions including best practices for teaching practicals (labs), techniques for teaching problem solving and critical thinking, lesson planning with demonstrations for counterparts, and math topics that are difficult to teach. I stayed the remainder of the week preparing for IST sessions and facilitating as requested in other EST sessions including scheme of work, exam writing, and project design and management.
I loved being part of EST. This class of volunteers are optimistic and grateful. At a time when I have been run down at site and frustrated with the realities there, it was awesome to be surrounded by the enthusiasm of new volunteers just getting ready to start projects and really dig into the work at site. I was there to teach but I think they did me more good in reviving my enthusiasm and inspiration.
After EST it was time for some vacation and relaxation. I spent a week on Pemba and then Christmas in Dar. The time to read and relax by the ocean and play games with friends was a much needed break and rejuvenation. Christmas in Dar went cooking in a real kitchen and more American food. After Christmas it was time to get headed back to site for new year's and the new school year.
New year's eve did not go as I planned, but is that not just how life works? I planned to do laundry in the morning and then spend the afternoon visiting friends and colleagues in the village. But instead I did not sleep last night and spent the day sleep deprived and nursing a headache. So I am spending new year's alone hoping tonight will be quieter and I can get some much needed sleep.
Happy new year! Stay tuned for the beginning of school, don't worry it will be a positive posts of what I am looking forward to in my second year here :)
My heart broke as I watched election results and reactions pour in yesterday morning (for me in Tanzania). Yes, my heart broke because this is not the result I wanted from the elections, not that I was particularly enthused about any outcome. But what pushed me to tears were the reactions on social media.
The results: My heart broke as I watched a candidate win who is a bully and who has threatened and put down so many groups of people - women, non-Christians especially Muslims, people of color, LGBT community, people with disabilities, immigrants, and so many more. My heart broke not because a candidate I did not and feel that I cannot support won the election. Democracy is not about my views or values but about the will of the country and in this election I disagree. But what would democracy be if we threw it out the window with an election we disagree with? I am upset because of the potential policies and legislation that could come out of this presidency, but I know our system has checks and balances and the president cannot act alone. What upset me most was the image. The person we have placed in a position to represent our entire country is misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, and more. People around the world see our president as a representation of Americans. Regardless of whether they know it's not reflective of all Americans, the image they have of all Americans primarily is our president and it makes me sick to know that in a few short months that image will be Donald Trump.
The reactions (the ugly): Initially my reaction to the reactions I saw on social media was anger. Many were upset by the results of the election. We all need time to process, to let these results sink in whether we are ecstatic with the results and hopeful of the change to come or disappointed, angry, heartbroken. Regardless of which side you fall on, your feelings are valid and you are allowed to express your opinion. But what I saw was not heartbreak or disappointment or just anger. What I saw was blame and hate of Trump voters and third-party/write in voters. What I saw was the election of Donald Trump was because of all you baby boomers, or third-party/write-in voters, or racist/sexist Trump voters, or the North Carolinians who support HB2. What I saw was the very same people who ended their "I voted post" with #lovetrumpshate spreading hate when the results of the election were not what they wanted.
In the midst of angry claims to unfriend (both on social media and in person) Trump supporters or third-party voters, I did not unfriend those who posted these hateful messages. Nor have I unfriended anyone during this campaign season. You have a right to your opinion and you have a right to your vote and for it to be for which candidate you think is best fit for the job. And you have a right to express that opinion. But what we do not have the right to do is blame and bully others for not agreeing with us. I did not and will not unfriend these people because while I may disagree and while I firmly believe that hate and blame are never the answer, having friends who disagree with me makes me a better human being. Because those people who disagree with me are not some statistical group. Some of them are friends and I want to understand where they are coming from and see them as human beings and friends as much as the friends I agree with. Because that human being on the other side is what makes me remember that the hate and blame I may want to place is hurting a human being, it is hurting a friend. Having those friends makes me a better person and helps me understand the issues better.
One of the great characteristics of human beings is resiliency. Whether it was this election or the election of Barack Obama or another president whom you disagree with the country survived that presidency. Of course the policies and actions of any presidency have consequences (both good and bad) but we survived. Chances are you don't hate everything enacted by the opposing political leadership. Our world is not black and white, even though we seem to have forced politics into being either red or blue. We may not have wanted Trump to win the presidency and we may not like what he represents or many of the policies and actions he will take in that role but we will survive. That fact of survival, of resiliency brings me hope. This too shall pass.
So as I start another day I hope that as the dust settles we remember that we are stronger together. I hope that we remember that both sides of any issue or political race are made up of human beings. I hope we remember the world is not black and white or red and blue but that we live in a grey/purple? area. I hope we remember to love one another.
I have officially been at site for over a year now and the beginning of this new year at site has had some rough changes. This time of year is rough anyway, little did we know first coming into site. After midterm exams and September break it's crunch time for exams including the national exams which determine whether students can continue in school or not and which job opportunities will be open to them.
Since I have been at my school the physics and math teachers have been me and a part time teacher who works at the teachers' college. So I have been teaching 2 forms and he has taught 2 forms which worked out to 3 classes each. But last week he got transferred so now it's just me. Being the end of the year this would not change anything except that national exams are coming up and form 4, which he taught, has a lab (we call them practicals) along with the written exam. The practical is supposed to be set up by the teacher. It's not difficult, I just don't have much spare time to figure out the practicals while trying to finish material with the 2 forms my teach and prepare one of those forms for their own national exam (without a practical).
Also last week my incredible counterpart got accepted to university and left this week for Dar to start his studies. Of course this is a great opportunity for him and I am excited for him. But disappointed that he won't be around as often. He has been the most helpful person on the planet any question or problem regardless of how small he has always immediately answered or been on top of it. I could not have asked for a better counterpart.
Add to these goodbyes improvements at school including a new teacher choo, working electricity, and computers - this next school year is going to be very different from my first year. On one hand I will be doing a lot more on my own without my counterpart to fall back on, obviously not alone because there are many other helpful teachers so not to worry. I will potentially be the only physics and math teacher next year because it is unlikely we will get another before the start of the new school year. I teach a more than full load right now and there are not enough periods in the schedule to teach all the classes now plus potentially an additional one since form 1 will likely have 2 streams but the graduating form 4 class only has one. But on the other hand also good - having been here a year I know what's going on and what's expected of me, I know my students and hope to follow them through my second year here, and with school computers I will no longer be the resident technology secretary (although there will be some teaching of computer skills).
All things considered I am looking forward to the year ahead. I enjoy teaching and for the rest of this school/calendar year I won't be doing much of that as students and teachers prepare for and take exams. Looking forward to spending my time at school actually teaching again. A new year will mean some new material as I follow form 3 up to their final year of secondary school but also teaching the same material again (either for form 3 or form 2 we shall see).
School is an interesting place and does not run as regularly as my A-type personality would hope. Throughout the course of the last year there have been may reasons I could not teach class. At first I just sighed and went back to the staff room to prepare notes but since I mostly teach form 3 math at 8am, when most of these occur it was time to start figuring out what was going on and getting my classes back. So below you will find a list of the reasons I have not been able to teach in order of my favorite to least favorite.
1. Students locked in the library.
The only morning I do not teach form 3 math at 8 am it following chemistry. Only about 30 of the 90 students in form 3 take chemistry so the other students are sent to the library to study. On this particular morning for some reason the teacher who was supervising in the library decided to leave and lock the library door from the outside. I decided to write notes on the board and note waste my time trying to track down the key and salvage what little would remain of my class time. In the grand scheme of things this is really not a terrible fate for the students who get beat for whatever the teachers deem misbehavior and are made to clean the grounds and carry water.
2. Following Fire
One morning as I walk up to form 3 there were about 5 students in the classroom. When asked where the rest of the class was they said "following fire". They meant that the students been sent to fetch firewood for the kitchen but our English isn't great...
Tin roof and thunderstorm...enough said.
4. Demolishing and cleaning out a classroom floor
Classroom floors are made of cement. This particular one was being repoured.
5. Graduation practice
6. Visitors - headmaster, teachers, or others with announcements
7. Carrying Bricks
8. Fetching Water
9. Another teacher took my period - with or without permission
10. Cleaning the grounds
11. Staff or other irrelevant Swahili meeting
To be clear I understand the necessity of staff meetings and occasional other meetings but I do not understand why they occur at any time of day instead of during chai break or after school when there are not classes that are supposed to be taught.
12. Beating the late comers
On September 1st Tanzania had the unique opportunity to watch a partial solar eclipse. In some areas, Mbeya and part of Njombe, a annular eclipse was visible. What is a solar eclipse? A solar eclipse is when the moon passes in from of the sun. However the moon is not always seen as the same size as the sun which is causes an annular eclipse; annular eclipse looks like a ring of fire because the moon passes directly past the sun but is slightly small causing it to appear as a ring of fire. From my vantage point in the Singida region it was only a partial eclipse, meaning the sun looked like a crescent moon.
I was pleasantly surprised how excited both teachers and students were about the event. At morning assembly I announced that there would be a solar eclipse and that viewing it without protection could damage your eyes. So I had made 3 pin hole cameras. The pinhole cameras were toilet paper rolls with paper covering both ends, one with a whole to view and the other acting as a screen. The screen end fit inside a cardstock tube with its other end covered in tin foil. There was a pin hole (literally hole made by a pin, very small) in the foil so it only allowed a small amount of light in. In the pin hole camera the eclipse appeared as a partial dot of light.
So a little before the eclipse I had a period of physics with form 3. Instead of having class I brought them all outside and we observed the eclipse. Students and teachers eagerly took a look through the pin hole cameras to observe the eclipse. I loved sharing the experience with students and watching them be able see for real something that is taught in physics classes.
I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Singida region of Tanzania teaching high school math and physics.